Wow. It's been a whole month since we embarked upon our first road trip with the kids. I am behind on my blogging.
We decided it was time for the kids to catch up with their cousins and for our younger son to meet his great-grandma who is 94. We looked into airfare and quickly realized that this could turn into a pretty expensive trip. Upon comparing airfare to gas and a couple nights in a hotel, we decided we'd try a road trip. Our kids love riding in the car so we figured this might be their kind of thing.
In preparation for our trip, I scoured pinterest for as many ideas for how to survive a road trip with young children. I came up with my own plan and the purpose of this post is to discuss what worked and what didn't...from the trenches.
The basic stats of what we had to work with. 1) An almost-three-year-old and almost-five-year old boy. 2) A 2003 Volkswagen Jetta. A small but awesome car that I love so much I stubbornly hang onto it even though we now have two not-so-tiny children. 3) An 800 mile drive each direction.
The logistics and goals. 1) Our small car had to be packed for a 10 day vacation. There's not much leg room so we needed to fit as much into the trunk as possible. I am both the organizer and the driver, so I wanted to make sure my husband had lots of room on his side and the kids didn't feel too claustrophobic in the back. 2) While we do have a travel DVD player, our kids aren't big TV fans so I wanted to see if we could make it the entire way there without any technology. Spoiler alert: we DID! 3) We wanted this to be a fun adventure. It WAS!
So, here are my tips for traveling with young boys. Note that our children are not really high-energy - they are more analytical - so this might not apply to all kids.
1) The feet need to land. Kids in carseats have dangling legs. For short trips, this is not a big deal, but can you imagine how uncomfortable this would be around the back of the legs over a long trip? So, I made sure that there was a skinny cooler under where my younger son sits. It happened to be just the right height for his feet to land on. For my other son, we put a plastic bathroom stool in front of his seat.
2) Organizing toys. I had read a whole bunch about wrapping gifts and giving kids new toys slowly. My husband thought this sounded like way too much work. I didn't want to deal with the garbage of packaging and wrapping paper. Instead, I grabbed a bunch of new, cheap stuff the kids had never seen before and created a middle-seat bin-o-fun. I found a bin made by sunshine kids (makers of awesome carseats and boosters) that even had extra cup-holders built into it. I separated toys into quart-sized freezer bags. The kids could easily open them and it limited the various kinds of toys we took. Only one freezer bag full of matchbox cars, one bag full of wooden trains, etc. To limit the mess and keep the toys accessible, whenever we stopped I would quickly gather up anything that had fallen on the floor and put it back in its bag.
3) Toys that worked. The big hits on the trip for the four-year-old were matchbox cars, sticky notes (stuck all over his window), a slinky, lace-cards and a BINGO of car-manufacturer logos. The big hits for the two-year-old were a toy calculator which he used as his own personal cell phone (I swear he "talked" on it for 50 miles one day), a slinky, matchbox cars and his blanket (he would just put himself to sleep when he got bored, he's awesome like that).
4) Toys that didn't work. I created a whole bunch of coloring sheets and then laminated them and placed them on clipboards. I bought washable dry-erase markers to be used with them. The dry-erase markers only lasted one day since the lids all got lost. The laminated sheets were slippery and they just ended up all over the backseat. My kids aren't big on coloring it turns out. Crayons are another thing I would not take next time. They were easily lost and they melted since most of where we were had weather in the upper 90s. Squinkies were fun briefly but so tiny they were very hard to keep track of.
5) Toys I wish I'd brought. Tape measures. They would have had a blast with those. A kid's doctor kit. That would have taken us probably a hundred miles. A map. Our older son had no way of quantifying how far we had driven and how far we still had to go. He would have loved to see some visual progress. Grab a map and make some notations on it that are age-appropriate.
6) Snacks. Under the bin-o-fun, I placed a flat, rectangular plastic box with lid and then placed some of that non-skid stuff on top of it to hold the bin in place. Inside that box, I put all kinds of snacks for the kids that my husband could easily reach back and grab. Note: if traveling in warm weather, make sure you choose snacks that won't melt. Raisins, pretzels, goldfish, granola bars work great. We pretty much had these snacks as back-up. For the most part, it was fun to grab something new and interesting at the gas station between meals. Chips, for example, were a huge deal for our kids since we don't usually buy them at home. My other tip regarding snacks was that in that cooler under my son's feet, we had bags of little carrots and grapes. They tasted SO good while driving and eating junk. I highly recommend the baby carrots. Even the kids loved them.
7) Stops. We found some crazy stops. Whenever we had to stop for gas, we made the most of it. We let the kids really check out the gas station and fully explore the cheesy souvenir sections. For some reason, we came across exactly ZERO playgrounds on our whole trip. A big disappointment.
8) Meals. This was a bit of a challenge for us since my husband and I have slightly different philosophies about food on the go. He prefers to find interesting restaurants and try new things. I just wanted to grab something quick and keep going. I am more interested in filling the tummy in this instance, less interested in fine cuisine. What we found with kids was that after sitting in the car for three hours, and no matter how well-behaved our kids are, it was virtually impossible for them to behave in a sit-down restaurant for longer than about 10 minutes. I'd like to say my philosophy "won" but we only ate at a McDonald's once. Guess what? It had a play area and the kids were in heaven.
9) How did we do this whole 800 miles with no technology thing? We just kept them busy with the stuff we brought and kept them looking out the window. We drove by so many trains and trucks and interesting geographical features. We also listened to lots of kid music. The other thing was pacing ourselves. We drove 500 miles the first day and 300 the second. This was just long enough that the kids were still smiling when we stopped for that first night - the picture below is the proof.
10) Technology has its merits. On the way home, we let the kids go crazy with the iPad and the portable DVD player. Since we didn't use either on the drive down, it made it feel like a special treat on the way home. It was nice, too, because it meant that my husband and I got to have some quality talk-time that we didn't get on the way down when we had to be more engaged with the kids. I think I would have felt horribly guilty having the kids totally plugged in both directions, but that's just me. Road trips are about survival and you do what you gotta do.
11) Bonus tip. Since our car was packed so tightly, I knew that there was no way we'd want to unload our luggage for our half-way overnight stop. So, I made sure when I packed the car, that I put what we would need for one overnight stay into a backpack in a very accessible place in the trunk. I also had a special little bag that contained a day's worth of diapers and wipes that I kept right next to my younger son so that when we needed to change a diaper quickly, we could just grab and go.
In the end, we had a great trip driving almost 2000 miles total. We decided we would definitely do it again. Am I crazy that I have this dream that when the kids get older, we take a drive all the way across the country? I think it would be incredibly memorable. We'll see...